Extreme Pilgrim is a Documentary programme that first aired in 2008.

Image for the Documentary programme "Extreme Pilgrim"
Picture: BBC

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Extreme Pilgrim (2008)

Extreme Pilgrim is a compelling series exploring the physical elements of three of the world's great religions.

Pete Owen-Jones, a vicar in a Sussex parish, is dissatisfied with some aspects of his faith and sets off on three extreme pilgrimages to China, India and Egypt to explore Zen Buddhism, Hinduism and ascetic Christianity.

Pete started as a copy-writer in advertising. After a crisis of meaning, he found God and gave it all up to be ordained into the Anglican Church.

But now, 15 years later, he feels that the Church of England is too much a faith of the head, and not enough a faith of the soul, the heart or even the body. He now sets off on a quest in search of a more physical and mystical path to enlightment.

Pete says: "What I'm looking for is a spirituality that is absent from western Christianity. A spirituality I know exists in the extremes of world religions.

"I hope to enter worlds where rule book and doctrine are replaced by an individual relationship with God and where the attainment of enlightenment is won by hardship, privation and pain. I have to become an extreme pilgrim."

In a bid to get to the heart of each faith Pete pushes himself to the limit of physical, mental and spiritual endurance: he undergoes hardship and exhaustion, bewilderment and anxiety, and yet throughout he undertakes his journeys with determination, courage and wit.

For his first journey, Pete travels to the famous Shaolin Temple in the Henan Province, a seven-hour train journey from Beijing. The Shaolin Monastery occupies a central place in Chinese cultural history, as it is the ancestral home of all martial arts.

Talking about the Shaolin Monastery, Pete says: "I'm told it's the place where one can attain spiritual enlightenment in the practice of extreme martial arts which is about as physical as you can get. All I know about the fighting monks is you don't mess with the fighting monks.

"And secondly, it is the expression of the divine within the physical. The Church of England in particular is incredibly intellectual. You know, huge libraries full of books and theological bookshops It's all incredibly intellectual. But we don't do anything physical. It's going to be very challenging I think indeed."

Pete is thrown straight into a gruelling routine of Kung Fu - the central technique in Chan Buddhism (also known as Zen Buddhism in Japan) - an experience that left the unfit vicar both physically and mentally exhausted.

"The trouble is it just uses every single muscle that I haven't used for the last I don't know how many years and so my whole body is complaining and so I know I've got two to three hours of absolute agony in front of me. It's just so many different instructions, so many different moves at the same time, trying to keep them in your head, my body won't do them."

However half way through his pilgrimage and despairing over the commercialisation of Shaolin, Pete leaves the Temple to seek true Zen enlightment in a remote monastery in the mountains, near the San Yang stronghold and it is here in the much calmer but still physically strenuous environment that Pete finally begins to understand the art of Zen Buddhism.

"Inexplicably, I'm there. I'm not even thinking about it, just doing it. Doing Zen and martial arts ... with a group of people who look out for each other. It is love, unselfish, non-possessive."

For his second journey Pete travels to India and joins the Mela, the huge Hindu pilgrimage that draws to the Ganges.

In the bewildering world of Mela, Pete meets a Guru who agrees to take him under his wing and teach him how to become a Sadhu - an Indian Holy Man. He then sets off on a journey across northern India to the mountains in search of the Hindu road to spiritual bliss.

And in the final episode Pete travels to the Egyptian desert to follow in the footsteps of the Christian hermit and founder of monasticism St Anthony. His trek to the desert culminates in a long spell alone in a cave in the wilderness.

At the end of his journeys will Pete have discovered spiritual enlightment? And will he resume his place in his Sussex parish?

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 60 minutes (approx)

Production Year: 2008